Monday, March 07, 2005

Be Still, Be Silent

Zechariah 2:10-13 (King James Version)

“10Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.
11And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee.
12And the LORD shall inherit Judah his portion in the holy land, and shall choose Jerusalem again.
13Be silent, O all flesh, before the LORD: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation.”

My college linguistics professor once told me that a true friend is someone you can be silent with. Conceptually that’s always been a difficult idea for me to grasp. It’s even more difficult in practical terms.

Silence seems all too often like a vacuum that must be filled. We take our cues from the scientists, philosophers, mass marketers, talk-show hosts, news anchors, politicians, and sometimes even theologians in this regard. They’ve told us that nature and the human heart abhor empty places and we somehow assume that neither nature nor silence is golden unless it is filled with something. To their credit the scientists only try to describe how nature fills the great gaps and voids in the universe or to even, by way of technology, get a glimpse of the unseen worlds all around us. Ah, but the others spend their time filling the vacuum with their sounds and we follow their lead, falsely believing that silence is to be abhorred.

Go to the remotest corners of the earth and you will see nomads clinging to transistor radios, all too eager to hear news that isn’t even relevant to them at all. The vacuum must be filled. Pick up your television remote or turn on your radio and begin to channel surf and you’ll be enveloped in a cacophony of sound. “Buy Ford, it’s built Ford tough.” “Buy Chevy.” “Buy stocks.” “Buy bonds.” “Buy low and sell high.” “Support my ideas.” Vote for me.” “Laugh at my jokes.” Yes, the vacuum must be filled.

It must even be filled in the most intimate of human relationships. Visualize, if you will, wives and husbands responding to one another after twenty or thirty seconds of after dinner silence. What will the ruling assumption often be? Something’s wrong! We’re not communicating! Those precious moments, meant to enrich, become a breeding ground for grievances.

As I sit here I sense how precious the silence can be. I hear the whisper of the wind through the bare branches of the mulberry tree outside my window and wisely remain silent. There’s nothing I can add that will adequately fill this mini-vacuum. Here the only thing that breaks the silence is the occasional call of a blue-jay or a redbird. But, unlike the man-made sounds, they are selling me nothing. The only response required of me is to sense and to feel. There’s nothing to buy, no product to hawk, nothing to shatter my senses.

Holy Writ itself often reminds us that silence is God’s medium. We’re instructed to “Be still and know that I am God.” When life’s temptations descend, when the hucksters who seem to rule life’s airwaves try to deceive us into giving up the pearls of great price in our lives for the things that will one day rust and corrupt, we can hear the Almighty’s counterpoint. “Be still!” He says. “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.”

There are few of us who ever fully embrace the silence. The one exception I think of is the poet. E.B. White, my favorite author, once described him and his role this way:

“A friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of his land, and keeps two cows there. I asked him one day how he liked his fence and whether or not it cost much to operate. “Doesn’t cost a damn thing,” he replied. “As soon as the battery ran down I unhooked it and never put it back. That strand of fence wire is as dead as a piece of string, but the cows don’t go within ten feet of it. They learned their lesson the first few days.”

“Apparently this state of affairs is general throughout the United States. Thousands of cows are living in fear of a strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine them. Freedom is theirs for the asking. Rise up cows! Take your liberty while despots snore. And rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere! The wire is dead, the trick is exhausted. Come on out!”

I believe the poets are indeed the few who have come out. They’ve worked their magic in the silence and have tried to show us the way.

But we who listen to the words they’ve penned in the silence have a problem. Our ears aren’t tuned to them:

“We would all like it if the bards would make themselves plain, or we think we would. The poets, however, are not easily diverted from their high and mysterious ways. The poet dares to be clear and no clearer; he approaches lucid ground warily, like a mariner who is determined not to scrape his bottom on anything solid. A poet’s pleasure is to withhold a little of his meaning, to intensify by mystification. He unzips the veil from beauty but does not remove it.”

I occasionally grasp the importance of the silence in my life. There have been times when I’ve felt the poet’s rage, but thankfully I’ve more often felt the touch of the Almighty that has said, “Peace, be still.” In those truly alive moments I’ve shed the language of commerce for the iambic pentameter that has been dormant for too long. It’s at those times that I’ve had my most powerful encounters with the truth that silence brings.

Three years ago I had such an encounter along the Kansas Turnpike, about twenty miles south of here. It’s interesting, I’d passed that mile marker many times before that glorious morning, but I’d never stopped to bathe myself in the beauty of the morning silence. But on this morning I stopped and saw what White meant when he said, “take your liberty while despots snore.” Even more important, though, was being able to see that it is God Himself who rules the silence. I had a grand epiphany, breathing in the beauty of a Flint Hills sunrise, overwhelmed by the power of the silence:

Reflections at Mile Marker 109, Kansas Turnpike
Phil Dillon
© 2002 Phil Dillon

It’s the cusp of dawn. I’m chasing Orion’s Belt and bull-haulers down the Kansas Turnpike. At mile marker 109, about a furlong or two south of the cattle pens, I stop.

The occasional rush of southbound traffic breaks the dawn silence. Like a general poised in his appointed place, I review the early morning parade. Saints and scoundrels, gospel singers and politicians, truckers, ranchers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, mothers, fathers, children, all pass by. Problems and opportunities wind their way down the highway with them.

I touch the highway sign. Mile marker 109. I feel the bits of rust creeping up on the metal. It’s man-made, temporal, placed on the edge of the eternal. It speaks. “This is where you are.” It speaks of commerce and progress passing by. It speaks of cattle and concept drawings on their journeys past a solitary milepost planted on the edge of eternity.

I turn, take a step, and cast my gaze across the prairie. Like the storied astronaut of my youth, that one small step transports me from one world to another. Thoughts pass by. Some pass quietly, humming like the Toyotas and Fords on the highway. Others I hear in the distance. Their low, grinding hums become roars as they draw near, like the Peterbilts and Kenworths hauling their precious cargoes from Chicago to Dallas or the Twin Cities to San Antonio.

While the darkness has not yet surrendered to the day, there are hints of color along the rim of the eastern sky. I sense that they carry the faint whisper of an announcement of the millennium to come. The ageless ritual proceeds, moment by moment. Light overcomes the darkness. The unbroken sky and the endless sea of grass now join together in a hymn of praise. The morning breeze caresses the tallgrass. The blades of grass, in turn, wave gently to and fro, worshippers caught up in the glory of this moment.

Thoughts glide effortlessly through the air, then stop to gently kiss the earth. The earth gratefully receives the kiss from above and pleads, “Maranatha…..Maranatha.”

A hawk circles above, wings outstretched, reaching for an unseen spire. As he circles, the dawn sun touches him, revealing his priestly robes and eyes of fire.

I sense that I’ve entered a great cathedral. I’m overwhelmed by my own smallness. I fear. The hawk descends slowly, gracefully and speaks. “You are indeed small. But, fear not. You’re known…..You’re known. This is where you are. Mile marker 109. This is the place where the line between now and forever is drawn. Here you own nothing, but are given the grace to be a part of everything. The language of the world you left is ownership. The language here is stewardship. This is the place where moth and rust do not corrupt.”

His appointed ministry complete, he now lays hold of the morning currents and moves effortlessly off to the east.

I feel the warmth of a tear as it drifts slowly down my cheek. My epiphany’s complete. I turn back and take another small step, returning to the world I left moments before. I take my place in line with my fellow travelers, the builders and dreamers, the movers and shakers, the commerce and the concepts. Our daily procession has taken us past this place…..mile marker 109.

Yes, there are many voices that compete for our ears, to try to fill our days. None is more meaningful or powerful than the silence. It is a true friend.

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